Top critical review
16 people found this helpful
A good read, but only up to a point
on 5 March 2012
As three other reviewers have noticed, this is a good book on a very interesting man - Belisarius, general of Justinian - but it also has many problems.
1) The first issue, also mentioned by Arch Stanton, is that the author has defined his subject very narrowly. The book is presented as a military biography. It therefore focuses on the campaigns of Belisarius against Persia, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths. However, because of this narrow focus, there is a need to provide a lot of context. This is what the three first chapters (Historical background, the Byzantine Court and the Early Life of Belisarius, the New Roman Army) attempt, and, I believe, largely fail to provide. The chapters are made up of various bits and pieces inspired by more specialized books. This could be fine except for the fact that the author, partly because of space constraints, feels obliged to make sweeping statements that he doesn't back by any evidence or decent explanation. One example is to contrast the Eastern and Western part of the Roman Empire with the latter being portrayed as "less civilized and wealthy". Another is to - implicitly - privilege Peter Heather's thesis (Rome fell because of the Barbarians in general and the Huns in particular) rather than the view that insists on decay and internal problems. A related issue here is that the author consistently presents as factual elements which are educated guesses. A typical example is the size of the units that made up the so-called "New Roman Army" and the the overall size of the army itself. Both issues are rather controversial. You could even dispute to what extent Justinian's armed forces were "Roman". The emphasis had largely shifted to cavalry rather than infantry. The best troops, especially (but not only) in the cavalry, were largely of "barbarian" ("non-Roman" and non-Greek) origins, mostly Germanic or Hunnic. Even a large part of the equipment (swords, bows etc...) had been borrowed from Germanic, Persian or Steppe foes, although, to be fair, Rome had always done this in the past. The chapter on the army's equipment is so condensed that a lot of substance is lost. So, to what extent was the Army still "Roman"? And what does this expression really mean here? Unfortunatly, neither of these two issues are discussed, or even mentioned.
However, the weakest of the three "context" chapters is probably the second one (the Byzantine Court), given the importance it had for Belisarius' career. Although a host of books dealing with imperial power in the late fifth and early sixth century, there is next to nothing on it in the chapter, only a few general considerations about the "civil service" tending to "resist change". There is no explaination as to why this would be so and how this would tie in with Belesarius and the military. Given that Belisarius' career and command owed so much too imperial politics where loyalty to the emperor was more important than success in the field, the Chapter on the Byzantine Court should definitely have been longer.
2) My second BIG issue is that, despite telling an interesting story, the author seems to have trouble making up his mind as to whether Belisarius was a GREAT general or not.
This, of course, is a major problem since it is supposed to be the book's main purpose. In fact, the problem starts on the very first page of the introduction with Ian Hughes stating twice that Belisarius is now relatively "little known" and, further on the same page, that "the period of Justinian and Belisarius remains relatively unknown." Again, these could be seen as examples of rather sweeping statements. However, it could also be somewhat worse than this, given that the bibliography is limited to two pages ONLY. There are dozens of books in print on Justinian's reign and his reign is covered in ANY history of the Late Roman Empire or of the early days of Byzantium. In fact, Justinian (and Theodora) are probably among the few that the general reader is the most likely to have heard about already. It is also surprising to see that so many references are missing from the bibliography which seems to be largely focused on Osprey publications.
The main problem that the author seems to have had, in addition to size constraints, is to make up his mind as to whether Belisarius was a great general or only a good one who had some incredibly lucky streaks but sometimes just "lost it" (and lost the battle). Having carefully read this book, it seems that the author finally goes for greatness although he mostly makes the case for a lucky general with a mixed and uneven record and some serious limitations. Some of these - in particular that he was mainly a cavalry general and does not seem to have been at ease when having to cope with both cavalry AND infantry, unless in a strong defensive position (as was the case at Dara) - would make him anything BUT "Roman". This may partly reflect a decline in the quality of imperial infantry (and of infantry in general) and of its ability to withstand cavalry. This decline has also been mentioned as a factor explaining Narses' troop deployments for his battles in Italy. This issue, however, is not discussed nor mentioned by Hughes.
A careful examination of each of Belisarius' battle shows that the ones that he lost were largely lost by his own fault. However, credit for some of his victories may at least partly be attributed to his subordinates or to sheer luck. Sadly, the book does not really discuss Belisarius' type of generalship, although at least one of the sources mentioned by Hughes does. Was he a balance sheet general, like Caesar for instance? Or a high-risk general who excelled in small action cavalry operations? Was he really the "inspired military leader" and "expert strategist" that another reviewer makes him out to be? I was not entirely convinced and was left with the distinct impression that neither was the author himself...
There are also a few problems in what should be the book and the author's "forte": the descriptions of the various battles. The provision of numerous maps is a nice touch. However, similar and sometimes better descriptions can be found elsewhere (such as that of the battle of Dara, in Haldon's Byzantine Wars). I was also disappointed because I was expecting a comparison between the respective generalships of Belisarius AND Narses and at least some discussion about the respective situations that they were placed in. There was none.
3) Despite all this, the book does have some outstanding qualities
- it is probably the best "short" introduction on Belisarius' and even on Justinian's wars because it is a rather good military history, given all its limits
- it is also very refreshing to read a book which departs from the very conventional view of Belisarius as the equal of Caesar, Hannibal or Alexander. He simply wasn't, and this is what the book clearly shows, regardless of whether the author really intended to make this point
- another strongpoint is that the author has a talent for spotting dubious stories that one source or another tries to make its readers believe. One example of this, although tehre are quite a few in the book, is the "legend" found in Procopius that Belisarius remained with his army (or what was left of it) trapped with his back against the river at Callinicum, valiantly fighting the Persians until dusk. In fact, as Ian Hughes makes clear, Belisarius crossed the river and abandoned his troops. He was also tried, but cleared, as a result of his defeat, largely because he was a "political" general, always loyal (although at some point during the Ostrogothic Wars Justinian would fear - wrongly it seems - that he was not), even if not always successful.
- even if borrowed from other authors, the book also contains some very important insights, such as the view that Justinian took advantage of opportunities as they came up but did not have any "masterplan" layed out in advance to reconquer the whole of the Western Empire
- Another good piece, which could have been more developed if the background piece on imperial power have been enlarged, is the political importance of Antonia, and the fact that Belisarius could do little against her, assuming he wanted to, at least as long as Theodora lived.